No public organisation has come under more critical scrutiny in Hawke’s Bay in the last two years than its tourism promotion agency.

With the 2010 meltdown of venture Hawke’s Bay (which also held broader regional economic development responsibilities), the tourism industry alternated between delight and dismay.

Delight … because the old crew running VHB was deposed; dismay … because much backbiting and groping for direction then ensued. For its part, the ‘owner’ of VHB, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC), seemed ambivalent about the matter, alternating between hand-wringing over its past stewardship and reluctance to provide more ratepayer subsidy to the tourism industry.

Annie Dundas: General Manager, Hawke’s Bay Tourism

Enter the team of Annie Dundas and George Hickton. Both seasoned tourism industry pros, they were lured onto the scene by Sam Orton, chairman of the (now) Hawke’s Bay Tourism Industry Association.
Hickton served ten years as chief executive of New Zealand Tourism, and agreed to superintend development of a new HB tourism strategy and structure. He now serves as chairman of Hawke’s Bay Tourism (HBT), the new dedicated agency that will lead our region’s tourism promotion. Other board members are HBRC Chair Fenton Wilson, Sam Orton, Jim Coyle (Snapper Park), and Dave Simmons (GM online & leisure, Air NZ).

Annie Dundas has served in senior roles for Tourism NZ, including delivering all of TNZ’s marketing plan in North America and marketing NZ tourism globally to the travel trade. She took over the hands-on responsibility for guiding the remnant tourism staff of Venture Hawke’s Bay for the fiscal year just ended, and planning the transition to a new era. She is now the general manager of Hawke’s Bay Tourism and its full-time staff of five.
As such, Annie Dundas is in the spotlight, charged with managing $2.55 million of public investment in tourism over the next three years (starting 1 July 2011), complemented by $160,000 per year from the tourism industry. BayBuzz interviewed Annie recently.

Toss the baggage

While there’s no question that Dundas is a talented and experienced travel industry professional, she’s an ‘outsider’ to the Bay. She touts that as an advantage. She hasn’t had a hand in the internecine warfare that has occurred among councils, and between councils and the local tourism operators. She brings fresh ideas. And she has seen firsthand how little Hawke’s Bay has delivered its message outside the Bay, where it matters.

When asked about the previous feuding between various tourism players in the region, she simply shrugs her shoulders, saying that’s a history she’s had no part in. She’s looking to the future. Great attitude. Whether it inoculates her from the rivalries that have impeded regional tourism promotion in the past, time will tell. Both Hastings and Napier Councils own, operate or ‘house’ major tourism assets, and have independently promoted these in the past. Both will spend amounts at least as great as HB Tourism marketing their own identities, events and attractions. And, at least for now, neither – unlike the Regional Council – has a direct financial investment in Hawke’s Bay Tourism.

Dundas expects that the other councils will eventually be willing to contribute funding to specific marketing campaigns. Presently about $500,000 is available in the HBT budget for actual marketing activities. Joint work is also underway with respect to event planning (about one year overdue) and promotional website integration.

“Annie’s grasp of the big picture in Hawke’s Bay is comprehensive. Her understanding of our place in New Zealand and the world leads me to have confidence in her ability to target our marketing with real results” napier mayor
barbara arnott

In her first trial by fire, Dundas recently coordinated Hawke’s Bay’s presence at the industry’s annual trade event in Queenstown – the showcase event for national and international travel planners and buyers. BayBuzz has heard glowing praise of the professionalism of that effort. From participant Catherine Hobbs-Turner of Mangapapa Petit Hotel: “Annie has been a breath of fresh air, for the first time since I have been in Hawke’s Bay it really feels that we have a unified focus within the sector.”

HBT hosted seven major international travel buyers from the US, UK and Holland in the Bay beforehand, telling our story. Nuts and bolts stuff that Dundas, with 16 years in the trade, has long ago mastered.
Says Sam Orton, “I am really pleased with the impact that Annie has had since coming to Hawke’s Bay … She has brought a huge amount of experience and leadership skills.” But from a key industry player: “So we’ve got a new logo, where’s the finished artwork I need to use it?” There will be no free ride for the new tourism organisation!

Still, for now, it’s mostly smiles and back-slaps all around, as everyone wishes the new team well. Says Annie: “The mayors have been tremendously supportive; they cannot be faulted.” Mayor Barbara Arnott comments: “Annie is a real professional in the tourism sector. She has a comprehensive grasp of the big picture in Hawke’s Bay. Her understanding of our place in New Zealand and the world leads me to have confidence in her ability to target our marketing with real results.”

Challenges ahead for tourism

So how will Dundas move the needle in terms of increasing visitors to Hawke’s Bay, a number that has flatlined at best? Obviously, a variety of macro-issues far beyond the control of anyone in Hawke’s Bay (or New Zealand for that matter) exert huge influence on our tourism prospects – from world recession, to currency exchange rates, to fuel prices.

Meantime, the habits and preferences of travellers are changing. Dundas sees the key overall metric that needs improving is increasing the length of stay of domestic visitors (80% of HB visitors). However, fully two-thirds of our visitor nights – that’s 2 million – are now spent in private accommodation, and not even on the radar. How does one identify and engage these visitors and get them to spend more? The answer seems to lie in tactics designed to make local residents into more enthusiastic ‘ambassadors’ for our region.

Changing preferences might also mean there are winners and losers within the sector. Hotel stays are increasing, for example, while motels are down. And not all attractions are evergreens. Arguably, there’s not much HBT can, or should, do about such trends. Its job is to develop and implement strategies that fill the feeder, so the calves can fend for themselves.

A final factor affecting visits to Hawke’s Bay – and one HBT has no direct control of – is the quality and differentiation of the region’s attractions and service. Visitors are increasingly well travelled, sophisticated and demanding, expecting both ‘unique’ and ‘above-average’ experiences. Surveys – and plenty of anecdotal evidence – indicate service is not a Hawke’s Bay strong suit. The general manager of Hawke’s Bay Tourism is discreet about such matters.

Getting priorities right

One of the first thing Dundas notes is: “We’ve been clear that we won’t move the needle in one year.” That said, she mentions a variety of initiatives. A freshening of the Hawke’s Bay brand presentation has been completed, at the hand of HB-based advertising maven Kim Thorp. “Now we’ve got to get that out in the consumer media, particularly Wellington and Auckland.”

Her main priorities include firstly a thorough review of the HB Tourism website (www.hawkesbaynz.com) and digital strategy, something that must be sorted by September when the next key promotion window for the Bay opens. She notes that the Tourism New Zealand website gets 12 million visits per year. “We need to leverage that site and get our share of its traffic.”

Second, a new membership model for Hawke’s Bay Tourism must be shaped, and local industry buy-in achieved. Not an easy task, given the diversity of players in the region’s tourism business – hospitality, food, wineries, attractions and other service providers. Most agree that the sector’s ‘skin’ in collective regional tourism promotion must increase if Hawke’s Bay is to remain competitive against other parts of New Zealand.

Throughout New Zealand, regional tourism agencies enjoy some combination of public sector and industry funding. The diplomatic Dundas says about HB Tourism’s present public funding: “We’re not poor; we’re not rich. I wouldn’t want any less.” BayBuzz has been less charitable, calling HBRC’s $850k per year an “exit strategy”, a vestigial amount related to past funding politics, and not a viable tourism investment.

Moreover, it’s fair to say that the regional council’s current funding commitment for three years will not be renewed without a strong ‘public good’ case being made by the industry, as well as continuing cash support from the industry itself. Some HBRC councillors hold the view that tourism is no more deserving of council subsidy than other struggling industry sectors in the region.

Dundas sees the public good component arising out of the very size of the sector, variously estimated at 5-10% of the Hawke’s Bay GDP, and therefore its contribution to the stability of the region’s economy. She argues that the sector is critical to supplying entry level work for younger workers. And she notes that strategic investment in tourism assets could potentially have major beneficial impact on local economies within the region – such as upgrading facilities at Lake Waikaremoana benefitting Wairoa. [BayBuzz thinks she’s figured out what constituency HBRC Chair Fenton Wilson represents!]

Dundas’ third priority, finally, is to project out of Hawke’s Bay with campaigns – public relations and advertising – that tell our story, targeting NZ domestic travellers and Australians. She says: “We must make Hawke’s Bay into a most desirable destination … it’s the hot destination … we need to go there.”

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